UK Politics

Lessons in Spin

If the BBC-Campbell row was going on in the USA I am pretty sure that the bloggers would be all over it but there seems little interest in the issue on UK blogs.

I could be cynical and suggest that a right-wing BBC journalist battling it out with a centre-left government makes those bloggers who complain about ‘lefty bias’ at the Beeb look a bit off the mark but to be honest I really think that, as Roy Hattersely points out today, there is little interest in the topic anywhere in the UK.

The argument between the government and the BBC has become so arcane that most of the general public feel submerged beneath the pros and cons. Disputes about who is most guilty of publishing single-sourced information are not dominating conversation in the bar rooms of northern England. And even in the golf clubs of the sophisticated south, eyes glaze over at the mention of Alastair Campbell’s 12 questions to the BBC’s head of news.

Hattersley then gives New Labour a reminder in the basic rule of communication:

The government’s standing and the prime minister’s reputation stand or fall not on details but by the impression that the representatives of the rival groups create. And ministers create a bad impression – not so much because of their behaviour as their demeanour. Say “Iraq” and they look shifty.

In other words – its the impression that counts. It is both strange and slightly worrying that Hattersley feels he needs to give the government a lesson in spin.

I do feel some sympathy with Campbell when he is accused of the supposed ultimate sin in spin of making himself the story. First of all the BBC made Campbell the story. Secondly I am not at all sure that deflecting the stick away from the PM and others is such a bad tactical approach.

But what about the BBC? Have they not committed a major error in allowing themselves to become the story?

As a general rule news organisations, apart from tabloid newspapers, rarely do well when they become the centre of controversy – just ask the New York Times. Rather like bloggers who blog about blogging, journalists who report about journalism tend to lose their audience – it’s too ‘inside baseball’ , too much like the bore in the pub who won’t shut up about his work. It is not worth it unless you really have something worth bragging about, which in this case the Beeb clearly don’t.

Perhaps given the many questions that could be asked about the war in Iraq and the problems of reconstruction the fact the media is focused on a tedious debate about reporting norms, sources and documents, is not a bad bit of deflection.

Maybe Campbell and co don’t need the lessons in spin after all?